A NEW film about Swaziland, The King and the People,
screened for the first time on Monday, provoked laughter in an
audience that was well-versed in the corruption that is alleged to
characterise life in the last remaining absolute monarchy in
The laughter reached its peak towards the end of the film, as
the narrator summarised the extent of King Mswati III's powers: he
appoints the Prime Minister, the cabinet, and judges; is head of
the armed forces; and is "immune to the law".
The anger beneath the laughter became evident during the
question-and-answer session that followed the screening, which was
attended by many Swazis, including members of a pro-democracy group
based in the UK, Swazi Vigil. They spoke of the lethargy of
international organisations, and frustrated attempts to challenge
the Foreign Office about the invitation to King Mswati to attend
the Queen's Diamond Jubilee celebrations.
The film was shot undercover in Swaziland. It tells the story of
the country through interviews with those fighting for a
multi-party democracy. It contrasts the extravagance of the King,
whose personal fortune is estimated at $200 million, with the
destitution of the people.
Examples of his expenditure prompt comparisons to Marie
Antoinette (in 2002, he spent $45 million on a private jet). In a
country with the highest prevalence of HIV/AIDS in the world, the
King violated his own law (a ban on sex with girls under 18) by
taking a 17-year-old girl as his ninth wife.
The activists say that only mass mobilisation will bring change
to the country. "Tradition is being used to manipulate the
unsuspecting population," a leader of a teaching union warns.
Perhaps most powerful are the interviews with ordinary Swazis.
One sugar-cane farmer describes how she brought up her
grandchildren after her children were diagnosed with HIV/AIDS. "I
want them to have a good life, and grow up well," she says.
On the day of the screening, Chatham House published a new
Swaziland: Southern Africa's Forgotten Crisis. It
highlights the world's lack of interest in a country with a
"worrying" trajectory that the King and government ignore "at their
Elections in Swaziland take place today. The Chatham House
report suggests that the elections are likely to have little
The King and the People was directed by Simon Bright of
Zimmedia and will be shown at the Afrika Eye film festival in
Bristol this year (www.Afrikaeye.org.uk). Church groups can
organise screenings through Action for South Africa (www.actsa.org).